10 Tried & True Mental Strategies for Long Distance Racing

fort mac

Let me preface this by admitting that I am generally terrible at everything.

Thank the heavens for long distance running.

It’s the only way I could ever call myself an athlete. My husband and I once saw a shirt that read, “All grit no talent,” and we both looked at me in lock step.

I once met an Olympic sprinter who waived her accomplishments off as simply born talent. She wanted to know how we did it. The long distance runners that is. Gritting it out is just how we do.

A friend asked me at a party a couple days ago what exactly goes through my mind when I’m racing… and how it is that I am able to endure so much unpleasantness mentally and physically. I think it comes down to  few things.

My childhood was awesome but it wasn’t easy. I was born in Northern Alberta. And yeah… that is a dog sled. It was miserably dark and inconceivably cold all winter. We didn’t have Gortex or “high loft” down. I had whatever jacket my sisters wore out five years ago – and maybe whatever Zellers boots were on sale. I had frostbite so often I thought that’s just what skin felt like when you came back inside. And if we whined, we got kicked back out. So we didn’t.

I got into horses and worked on farms and ranches for years. I even lived in a barn for a while. I woke up early, I mucked stalls and lifted heavy stuff all the time. Because I had to. No sense thinking about it. It just had to be done. So I did it. After years shovelling and lifting I got into training horses. I learned patience and probably the true meaning of grit. Eventually the horse does what you want it to – but it takes time – and usually a lot of getting bucked off. And it takes even more getting back on.

I definitely feel that my background shaped who I was when I finally started running in my 20s. Maybe even more than growing up an athlete would have. But what goes through my mind to keep me going…?

Here are the top ten things:

1. How do you want to remember this?

As was famously quoted of Muhammad Ali, “Suffer now and live the rest of your life a champion.” You’re going to finish it anyway, so why do it half-assed? In fact, I sometimes make myself a deal that this can be my last race if I do it well. And then I sign up for another one. Every. Damn. Time.

2. I leaked some torque on that last step.

More often than not when I’m chasing down a PB or willing my little slow twitch muscles to go fast I am focused inwardly, taking score of each step.

Did I tense anything unnecessarily? Did I achieve full hip extension? How long was my foot on the ground? Did my arm swing straight back? That sort of thing.

3. I love this.

I stay positive as much as possible and when I’m feeling yucky I remind myself that I am the one who signed up to be here and wanted to challenge myself. That I love both the good days and the bad days because it’s all part of this sport.

4. This is not easy.

Sometimes I poke fun at myself for thinking, “Wow, this ultra marathon is hard!” Yeah. Yeah, it is. And then I move on. Usually back to #3.

5. Go get ’em.

I sometimes start playing a cat and mouse game if I’m getting bored. Even just changing up the pace by adding a quick pick-up helps.

6. Swing those arms.

As you tire your cadence (speed of foot strike) slows dramatically. I focus on light quick arm swings to get my feet going. You also start slamming the ground, so I pretend I’m running through the forest at night which gives me slightly quicker, lighter, higher steps.

7. Wow, that feels great. 

Sometimes changing my mood requires little more than removing a pair of gloves or sunglasses. i then reinforce it by telling myself how great it feels to have the cold breeze on my hands. It’s not quite like starting the race anew but it’s rejuvenating if your tell yourself it is.

8. This is why you’re out here.

This one connects to #3. Embrace the suck. Most people are incapable of pushing themselves to that level of discomfort. But runners know it’s going to be a bit unpleasant and maybe even a little painful… and we’re cool with that. It’s why we strap that bib on.

9. Feeling good. Easy day.

After embracing the suck I usually cycle it back around to feeling easy. I focus on the little things like how comfortable my shirt is or how light my legs feel. I acknowledge the big things like rain as not being too hot and hilly courses as a chance to break up my stride. Basically, I just try to spin everything into a positive. It’s good practice for life!

10. I’m doing so well. 

I don’t even let myself get disappointed with a bad race out on course. I acknowledge who I am ahead of or behind. I applaud myself for fighting through a tough day and getting stronger physically and mentally. i find a way to be happy with my effort. I try to do this post race too… but it’s definitely harder.

So – it’s your turn now. What goes through your head to make you keep on running?

The First Half Half-Marathon

first half marathon

I came into this half marathon with little to no expectations. With a pretty hefty race schedule on the horizon, I couldn’t really afford a taper. I signed up based on a deal with myself that it was a train-through tempo kinda deal.

When I hit the 10k sign at 39 something, I was a little surprised… and pretty determined to keep on.

The course heads out to the Stanley Park seawall, the site of so many Vancouver races. Not being from Vancouver, you might think the seawall would be the most enchanting place to run in the whole of this great city.

It’s cool the first 800 times. And then it’s a bit like a sitcom: everyone so alone and isolated but sharing in the experience enough to laugh at the same jokes. You can see people – forever. But they look like a line of ants in various neon hues.

There is one part in particular that hurts my soul: that stretch by third beach. I have no idea why. It’s beautiful. It’s a beach for goodness sake. But it killllllllllls me.

I made a deal with myself that I’d run strong through it… but deals are made to be broken as they say. Still, I didn’t slow much… so I guess that’s a win.

I’d seen John and the girls now on course a few times, which kept me clicking on. I was also glad that John worked my calves and quads out the night before and the morning of. They were tired – but they could have been very sore on top of it.

By the time we hit the gravel trail at Lost Lagoon, my legs started protesting. Every step seemed jarring and awkward. My feet seemed unable to anticipate the ground.

The last few miles were just a matter of keeping my legs moving. I focused on a quick arm swing and light feet. Those last few short steep hills were as brutal as I remembered. I slowed dramatically but pushed on at the crests.

Coming around to the finish line, I was bathed by the warmth of familiar voices screaming for me. Best run club ever. Best friends ever.

To make my new 1:25:12 personal best even better, five other girls crushed the course and Dan broke 90 for his first time.